When we were in Paris in 2006, Louisa and I visited Alain Ducasse's phenomenally popular restaurant Aux Lyonnais, a bustling, energetic tribute to the cuisine of Lyon, a city known for its bouchons (casual, brasserie-like eateries serving traditional foods) and its textiles. Our hotel was instructed to call and confirm the reservation not once, not twice, but three times, lest we appear unenthusiastic and thus lose our table to the cutthroat competition vying for a table.
The dinner was good, not great - but the appetizer we were served while waiting for our table was delicious. Called, disturbingly, cervelle de canut (literally, "brains of the silk worker"), it's a mixture of fromage blanc, herbs, shallots and vinegar and is traditionally served spread on slabs of toast. I still remember how surprisingly good the combination of vinegar and cheese was - it reminded me of a slightly more sophisticated green goddess dressing.
So when I saw that fromage blanc at the farmers' market on Saturday, I immediately knew I wanted to make some cervelle de canut to serve to some friends who were due that evening for cocktails and a Sex and the City marathon.
If you don't have all the herbs called for (chervil can be hard to find), just compensate with equal parts of the other herbs listed, or improvise and create your own mix. Like all traditional foods, there's no one right way to make cervelle de canut, and you should customize to your heart's delight!
Queenie's Cervelle de Canut
8 ounces fromage blanc, drained of its liquid
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tbs cream or half and half
2 small shallots, chopped fine
1/4 cup parsley, chopped fine
1/4 cup finely chopped chives
1/4 cup chervil, chopped fine
Salt and pepper to taste
1 loaf sourdough or other hearty bread, cut into small slices and lightly toasted, for serving
In a medium-sized bowl, combine the cheese, vinegar and cream with a wooden spoon, mixing until well-blended. You are aiming for a slightly watery consistency, but one that is still spreadable.
Add the shallots and herbs and combine evenly. Salt and pepper to taste (keeping in mind that the flavors will develop while the mixture rests), cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least two hours.
Taste and adjust seasonings before serving with toast (or crudites).
Serves 6-8 as an hors d'oeuvre.